Red Claws ready for D-League playoff debut

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To say that life in the NBA Development League changes from day-to-day probably isn’t exact enough. Hour-to-hour is more like it.

So perhaps it was fitting that the Maine Red Claws lost their final game of the regular season to Erie on Saturday night, then had to wait about 60 minutes for Iowa to surprise Sioux Falls and seal Maine’s first-ever playoff berth.

“There has been a constant turnover of personnel, but I think we’ve not only persevered but stepped up to the challenge,” Maine coach Mike Taylor said. “Guys have found their strengths and we’ve been able to blend those different strengths and different personalities. I feel really good about where our team is at.”

Maine (26-24) hosts Rio Grande Valley (35-15) on Thursday in Game 1 of a best-of-three quarterfinal series. Tip-off is 7 p.m. at Portland Expo. Game 2 and Game 3 (if necessary) will be played in Hidalgo, Texas.

The No. 8 Red Claws drew the No. 2 Vipers via the D-League’s unique pairing system, by which the three division champions — beginning with the team that owns the best record — choose their first-round opponents from the lower seeds.

Rio Grande Valley beat Maine in both halves of the teams’ home-and-home series by 18 and 17 points in February.

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“There are a lot of statistics going around out there. ‘The Red Claws are 1-10 all-time against the Vipers. The Red Claws are 0-2 against the Vipers this year. The Vipers have won 10 straight games. The statistics don’t mean anything to us,” Taylor said. “We’re a whole new team. I’m very optimistic.”

Here’s a statistic that means plenty to Maine and its fans, dubbed by the team as “Crustacean Nation” — the Red Claws are in the postseason for the first time in their four-year history.

That seems unlikely when you consider another piece of data. Micah Downs, Chris Wright and Fab Melo were the only Red Claws to start more than 30 of the team’s 50 games, and Downs is not on the playoff roster.

“There’s just a lot of turnover. It’s hard on coaches,” Red Claws president and chairman Bill Ryan said. “You can be all ready to play and then somebody like Shelvin Mack (now with the Atlanta Hawks) gets called up. So you’ve lost your point guard and a big scorer, and now you have to get ready to play in five hours.”

NBA and NCAA rosters generally start with 15 players. Class A high school teams typically carry 12 to 14.

With a exceptions for players on specific NBA assignment, such as Celtics draft choice Melo, D-League squads start with 10.

Another player who contributed heavily to the Red Claws during the 2012-13 campaign, DaJuan Summers, is with the Los Angeles Clippers.

“We’re primarily a developmental league, so our goal is to develop players and get guys ready for the NBA, and we’ve done that successfully,” Ryan said. “At the same time, we want to win. Our fans like winning. I like winning. On a personal level we root for the players and the team as hard as anyone.”

Taylor is Maine’s third coach in four years. Austin Ainge, son of Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, led the team for two seasons before taking a post in Boston’s front office. Dave Leitao took over in 2011-12, then returned to the collegiate game as an assistant at Missouri.

Maine went 7-3 out of the gate in Taylor’s rookie season before the revolving door took its toll.

“We had an outstanding start. Then Shelvin got called up and DaJuan got called up,” Taylor said. “We had to make changes to the team and weren’t satisfied with the results, so we made a couple of trades. The last month we’ve started to feel good about where we are.”

Central Florida product Jermaine Taylor has averaged 24.4 points per game in eight contests with the Red Claws. Recent acquisitions Curtis Jerrells and Josh Selby also have averaged double digits.

Wright (18.3 points, 9.2 rebounds per game) and Melo (9.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3 blocks) have been steady contributors all season.

“You can’t tie your promotions to one player, or even two or three. I watch a Celtics commercial and I see Rondo, Garnett and Pierce. We don’t do that,” Ryan said. “I think our fans are pretty understanding. They know it’s a minor-league sport. The fun part for a lot of them as well as for us is watching where guys end up. Some of them realize they’re not going to make it in the NBA and they wind up playing all over the world.”

Rio Grande Valley is a team that appeared to make all the right moves after an 8-8 start.

The Vipers have lost only twice since the end of February. The franchise won the D-League championship in the Red Claws’ rookie campaign of 2010.

Oops, there we go again with those statistics, although Taylor added a few of his own out of respect to the opponent.

“They’re a deep team, a talented team. On a 12-man roster I think they have nine with NBA experience,” the coach said. “They play with a ‘rocket ball’ philosophy. They put up a lot of 3s. They’re the No. 1 scoring team in the league. They’re a loaded team.”

koakes@sunjournal.com

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